Scientists call for release of Czech jailed in India

July 4th, 2008 - 8:55 pm ICT by IANS  

A file-photo of Manmohan Singh

Bangalore, July 4 (IANS) Over 500 scientists from across the world Friday submitted a joint petition to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, seeking the release of an eminent Czech entomologist who was arrested for collecting beetles from a national park without permission. Petr Svacha of the Institute of Entomology Biology Centre at Branisovska and his colleague Emil Kucera have been detained without bail since June 23 for violating the Indian Biodiversity Act by collecting beetles from West Bengal’s Singalila National Park, about 90 km from Darjeeling, without official permission. Their case will come up for hearing July 7 in a court in Darjeeling.

While some media reports claimed the duo were planning to sell the insects in the Chinese medicine market, the Czechs said they were catching beetles for scientific research and their personal collection and were unaware that collecting insects was illegal in India.

In a rare case of solidarity, 525 scientists from around the world have rallied in support of Svacha, who is an acknowledged expert on wood boring beetles and is also editor-in-chief of the European Journal of Entomology.

Signatories to the petition sent to Manmohan Singh and Bhattacharjee said that while the foreigners had failed to get permission, they were genuine scientists with no commercial interests and must be released.

“Petr Svacha is well known to us as a world-renowned specialist on sawyer beetle larvae and a serious academic and we don’t think that he was collecting insects for any commercial purpose.

“His main scientific interest is in a group of beetles whose larvae live in wood. The beetles he collects are for his institute’s scientific collection,” the petition said.

“We realise that Svacha has erred in attempting to sample material in a protected area of a foreign country without properly enquiring about permit requirements. Yet, considering his reputation among the scientific community and his old age and frailty, we feel he should not be punished any more,” it added.

Jonathan Martin of the Natural History Museum in London said that “genuine insect field work is becoming ever more difficult as such misunderstandings arise”.

Patrick Arnaud, a beetle specialist from France, said there was no commercial market for the larvae that the Czech scientists collected. “If such market existed, thousands of people would be collecting in India,” he said.

The international campaign for the release of the Czech scientists was set off with an appeal from Max Barclay, a senior curator of the British Museum of Natural History in London, to Priyan Dharmarajan, a leading entomologist at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Environment and Ecology (ATREE) in Bangalore.

Seeking Indian scientists’ help for the release of the Czech scientists, Barclay said: “Petr Svacha is well known to us, he is a serious academic, not a dealer, one of the best specialists in the world on larval coleoptera. It is certain in my opinion that he and his friend were not collecting for any commercial purposes.”

The Czech scientists are the latest victims of the draconian Indian Biodiversity Act, said Dharmarajan. Last year, an Indo-US conservation project involving insect collection in the Western Ghats had to be aborted as the act forbids large scale export of insects from India for their identification.

“The act needs to be amended immediately to allow genuine research to flourish. Wherever we go, we collect insects without any problem. Recently, on a trip to Bolivia we collected ticks and identified four new species,” Dharmarajan said.

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